An Examination of Social Desirability Bias in Measures of College Students' Financial Behavior

By Kelly, Nicole; Harpel, Tammy et al. | College Student Journal, March 2017 | Go to article overview

An Examination of Social Desirability Bias in Measures of College Students' Financial Behavior


Kelly, Nicole, Harpel, Tammy, Fontes, Angela, Walters, Connor, Murphy, Jan, College Student Journal


Numerous studies have documented growth in habitual spending, use of loans, and credit card debt among Americans (Kennickel, Starr-McCluer, & Surette, 2000; Xiao, Tang, & Shim, 2008). Currently, many individuals and families in the United States are reportedly living beyond their financial means (Robb & Woodyard, 2011). This rising "culture of debt" wherein consumers are faced with multiple financial hardships has contributed to the documented increases in households struggling to meet financial demands (Kennickel et al., 2000). Since the amount of borrowing and credit use has grown in recent years, increasingly larger shares of household income are being allocated to the repayment of debt (Kennickel et al., 2000).

In 2010, 84% of college students possessed a credit card, with the average college student possessing 4.6 credit cards at any one time (Robb & Pinto, 2010). Possession of the cards is not in itself problematic. However, according to Leclerc (2012), "These students don't just possess the credit cards; they accumulate unhealthy amounts of debt and practice irresponsible spending habits" (p. 149). Unfortunately, the financial debt carried by students has been found to negatively affect their collegiate academic achievement and success. In particular, credit card debt is negatively associated with student persistence behavior (Robb & Woodyard, 2011), credit hour completion and graduation (Robb & Pinto, 2010). While credit card use has been associated with poor academic performance (Leclerc, 2012), the directional link between academic performance and credit card use is unclear. On the one hand, high credit card use may create the need to work more hours, which may then affect academic performance. Alternatively, students who are not high achieving may be more likely to use credit cards in general. Regardless, "being in credit card debt is common for an abundance of college students" (Leclerc, 2012, p. 155).

Not all college students are equally likely to use credit cards and acquire debt. Researchers have identified risk factors that place some college students at greater risk than others. In particular, females and racial minorities are more likely than their peers to be in credit card debt (Leclerc, 2012), as are students from divorced households (Borden et al., 2008). In addition, having a low monthly income, not receiving adequate financial aid, and being financially independent also increase the risk of credit card debt among students (Robb & Sharpe, 2009). Finally, Borden et. al (2008) found that students who come from higher socioeconomic status families actually engage in more frequent risky financial behaviors, perhaps due to poor financial socialization by their wealthy parents or easy access to credit cards.

Given that college students are new to financial independence and demonstrate high rates of credit card and loan use, they are an especially vulnerable and financially at-risk population when it comes to financial behaviors and attitudes (Xiao et al., 2009). Much attention has been paid to college students when investigating financial behaviors, partially because they are a heavily surveyed and convenient sample (Gutter & Copur, 2011), but also due to recent changing and uncertain economic conditions. An increase in the cost of college tuition, matched with the struggling job market, has raised concerns about college students' financial well-being (Sages, Britt, & Cumbie, 2013).

Socially Desirable Responding

Recent research carried out by consumer economists and the financial services industry has prompted the need for additional research to better understand the financial behaviors of consumers (Kim et al., 2003). Self-report surveys are commonly used to investigate the financial behaviors and attitudes of consumers. The accuracy of data obtained in a self-report survey is primarily dependent on the accuracy or validity of participants' answers (Tourangeau, Rips, & Rasisnki, 2000). …

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